January 4, 2022

IntelBrief: Egypt Continues to Navigate an Unstable Neighborhood

(AP Photo/Thomas Hartwell)

Bottom Line up Front

  • Through both intervention and diplomacy, Egypt’s leaders are responding to multiple regional crises, any of which threaten to roil the country’s domestic politics.
  • The government has intervened militarily to counter regional Islamist movements and to protect Egypt’s vital interests.
  • In order to focus on mitigating regional conflicts, Egypt has sought to put aside rifts with several countries in the region, including Turkey and Qatar.
  • Egypt’s offshore gas deposits position the country to help alleviate the economic crisis in Lebanon.

Egypt has seen relative domestic stability—largely facilitated by the autocratic repression of opposition activists and civil society—since the 2013 military coup, led by then-military leader and now President Abd el-Fattah El Sisi, that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-led government elected after the Arab Spring uprising. The popular rebellion in 2011 ended the regime of longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Under Sisi’s leadership, the Egyptian government has systematically sidelined domestic dissent, often employing counterterrorism rhetoric and limiting rights to assembly and expression, through an extended state of emergency and arbitrary detentions. Yet, on the foreign policy front, conflicts and instability rage in countries on virtually every border with Egypt, any one of which could potentially spill over into Egyptian territory and affect its internal politics. Egyptian forces additionally continue to battle a low-level insurgency in the Sinai peninsula by elements linked to the Islamic State.

To both its east and its west, Egypt has intervened militarily to try to restore stability, perceiving its vital interests threatened by conflict. In neighboring Libya, and in partnership with the United Arab Emirates and Russia, Egypt has militarily supported eastern Libya’s strongman Khalifa Haftar as a bulwark against Islamist militant groups and a counterweight to UN-backed leaders in western Libya. Egypt was hoping that the December 24 Libyan presidential election would stabilize the country, but the election was postponed, prompting greater uncertainty. Across the Red Sea in Yemen, despite a history of a failed intervention in its civil war in the 1960s, Egypt deployed some forces as part of a Saudi-led Arab coalition trying to defeat the Iran-backed Zaidi Shia “Houthi” movement that ousted the Republic of Yemen government from Sanaa in 2014. Egypt’s main role in the coalition has been to conduct maritime operations to secure the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a vital commercial chokepoint. Periodic Houthi attacks on international oil tankers and warships in the Strait threatened Egyptian revenues from the Suez Canal. At the same time, Egypt has also supported diplomacy to achieve a ceasefire that would calm tensions and allow for a negotiated political solution to the conflict.

In areas of the region in which Egypt has not intervened directly, Egypt’s leaders have stepped up diplomatic efforts to restore stability and calm tensions. Egypt did not intervene in Syria’s civil war, but in September 2021, Egypt conducted its first high-level meeting (at the foreign minister level) with Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011, seemingly recognizing that President Bashar al-Assad has defeated the armed rebellion and that Syria will need regional assistance for reconstruction. Although its influence with the Palestinian national movement has waned significantly in recent years, Egypt has remained involved in promoting an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. By exerting some control over import and export routes in the Gaza Strip, Cairo has worked with Israel to try to pressure Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that is the de-facto authority there. Egypt and Israel—with which Egypt has been at peace for more than 40 years—hope to compel Hamas to reconsider its opposition to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Egypt brokered the ceasefire in the latest major armed clash between Israel and Hamas in May 2021 and subsequently provided reconstruction aid to the Gaza Strip in an effort to restore Egyptian influence. In Sudan, a country from which instability has often bled into southern Egypt, Cairo has sought to broker a political solution between military and civilian political leaders following an October coup that suspended a civilian transitional government. With yesterday's resignation of Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Egypt may seek to get even more closely involved in what happens next. Although many observers assessed the Sisi government as sympathetic to the October coup, Egyptian diplomacy contributed to a November 21 agreement for Hamdok to attempt to reconstitute a new, consensus government and place Sudan’s democratic transition back on track. That transition is now in serious jeopardy.

In corners of the region beyond Egypt’s immediate borders, Cairo has sought to mend ties with regional adversaries and use its developing energy resources to expand its influence. The Sisi government joined its Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in 2017 to try to isolate Qatar because of its independent foreign policies. In part, Sisi resented Qatar’s support for Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Morsi during his abbreviated 2012 – 2013 presidency of Egypt. Yet, in concert with Gulf allies, Egypt reconciled with Qatar in early 2021. Cairo has also welcomed steps by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to rebuild ties throughout the previous year. Egypt-Turkey relations have been strained for several years over their respective support for the two main rival factions in Libya. In addition, Egypt’s development of its offshore natural gas resources has well-positioned the country to help ease Lebanon’s economic crisis by participating in a U.S. and World Bank-backed project to supply it with gas via a pipeline transiting Jordan and Syria. Cairo is demanding guarantees from Washington that its participation in the project will not be sanctioned under the Caesar Civilian Protection Act that penalizes transactions with state-owned Syrian energy entities, but all parties aim to resolve remaining issues and begin the gas deliveries early this year. The gas deal, coupled with the broad range of Egyptian activities and diplomacy in the region, will advance Sisi’s goal for Cairo to resume its former position as a core Arab state able to influence events throughout the region. Yet, beyond its borders, none of the region’s various conflicts or rifts has been permanently resolved, rendering Egypt still vulnerable to events and developments beyond its control.